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The President and the Gates Kerfuffle

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At yesterday's news conference (transcript here, excerpt after the jump), President Obama said, with regard to the Gates incident, "the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home...." Disturbingly absent from his statement is any parallel rebuke to Gates, whose extreme overreaction to a legitimate police inquiry was the main cause of the incident. The police report is here.

True enough, the police should not have arrested Gates for screaming unfounded accusations of racism at an officer just doing his job. Being a total jerk is not a crime. Yelling at someone you are angry at in your own home -- even though unjustified -- is not disorderly conduct under a constitutional interpretation of that offense. But if the President is going to criticize the police's conduct in the incident, he should certainly include Gates's complicity in the matter as well.

There is much talk about the incident showing what it means to be a Black man in America today. I think it shows even more clearly what it means to be a cop in America today. In the course of doing your job -- in this case protecting Gates's house from what appeared to be a burglary -- you have to take guff from people like Gates and just suck it up.

AP reports the White House is now backing off the "stupidly" remark.

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Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  Recently Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge.  What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I should say at the outset that "Skip" Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here.  I don't know all the facts.  What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house, there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place -- so far, so good, right?  I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now so -- (laughter) -- it probably wouldn't happen.  But let's say my old house in Chicago -- (laughter) -- here I'd get shot.  (Laughter.)

But so far, so good.  They're reporting -- the police are doing what they should.  There's a call, they go investigate what happens.  My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house.  The police officer comes in, I'm sure there's some exchange of words, but my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house.  And at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct -- charges which are later dropped.

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.  That's just a fact. 

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately.  And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society.  That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made.  I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. 

And yet the fact of the matter is, is that this still haunts us.  And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and oftentime for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.  And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.

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